Leon Russell and Doyle Bramhall II help pedal-steel ace Robert Randolph shine



By Steve Newton

Pedal-steel virtuoso Randolph had no problem getting people like Ben Harper and Leon Russell to perform on his upcoming CD, We Walk This Road, which is set for release on June 22. His mind-blowing musicianship alone might have convinced them to offer their talents, but having ace producer T Bone Burnett onboard didn’t hurt either.

“So many people just found it interesting that me and T Bone were working together,” explains Randolph before a gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco. “They all wanted to come down to the studio while we were in there.”

According to Randolph, long-time Eric Clapton guitarist Doyle Bramhall II decided to hang around “for the better half of a week”, until he was asked to play and sing on a bluesy rendition of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama”. And after the 68-year-old Russell heard about the project from Burnett, he became a fixture at the studio too.

“He comes down when we’re about to record this song ”˜Salvation’ and he’s just sorta sitting there,” recalls Randolph. “The next thing you know I’m like, ‘Hey Leon, if you want to play piano or something on this thing you can sit in and do it.’ And he doesn’t really move fast anymore, but he jumped up as fast as he could, ran in there, played the piano, and it became this special thing where it’s just pedal steel, piano, and vocals goin’ on.”

Harper sang on a gospel-heavy cover of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way”, and drum great Jim Keltner—who rattled the skins on the original version of Bob Dylan’s “Shot of Love” nearly 30 years ago—was back behind the kit for We Walk This Road’s rockin’ remake.

Although he’s currently touring with his Family Band—which includes his sister Lenesha Randolph on vocals and cousins Marcus Randolph (drums) and Danyel Morgan (bass)—Randolph will make a detour to Illinois on June 26 to join Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, which raises funds for Clapton’s drug-rehab centre in Antigua. In 2004, at the age of 25, Randolph performed at the first Crossroads festival in Dallas, joining Slowhand, Robert Cray, and Jimmie Vaughan in “Six Strings Down”, an elegy of sorts for Vaughan’s little brother Stevie Ray, who was a major influence on Randolph.

Another blues-rock legend who’s been crucial to Randolph’s musical development is Jimi Hendrix, whom he also paid tribute to, three months ago, on a 13-date leg of the Experience Hendrix Tour. Randolph’s set featured “Them Changes”, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return”), and “Purple Haze”, the last of which he’s considering rolling out again for the Crossroads gig. He figures Clapton would approve.

“We’ve become good friends over the past eight, nine years,” says Randolph, “and alongside of being a great artist, he’s a great man. Gaining musical knowledge from him is such an honour for me, and to be able to pick up the phone and call him whenever I want to, that’s just so cool.”

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